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Delving into dessert wines

“People still have kind of a ‘sweet is bad’ attitude”


A dessert-wine flight at Allegheny Wine Mixer: Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2001, Cossart Gordon 10-year Bual Madeira and Jurancon Moelleux Camin Larredya - CP PHOTO BY JOHN COLOMBO
  • CP photo by John Colombo
  • A dessert-wine flight at Allegheny Wine Mixer: Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port 2001, Cossart Gordon 10-year Bual Madeira and Jurancon Moelleux Camin Larredya

I don’t often order dessert. I wish I could say that I am too sophisticated for sweets or possess incredible self-control. But the truth is that I’ve usually stuffed my face so aggressively during the previous courses that there’s not a speck of room left for cakes and pies. Dessert wine, however, I can get into. A nip of sweet wine feels like a perfectly classy (and less filling) cap to a decadent meal. I sat down with Jamie Patten, the owner of the Allegheny Wine Mixer, and her husband, John Venable, to talk and taste through an impressive selection of dessert wines.

“People [in America] still have kind of a ‘sweet is bad’ attitude,” notes Patten, citing the ill reputation of mass-produced, sickly sweet offerings like Blue Nun. At Allegheny Wine Mixer, however, Patten encourages people to explore the sweeter side of wine with a carefully curated and accessible selection of dessert wines. And it’s working. “We go through a weird amount of dessert wine here,” she says, laughing.

So what is dessert wine? The broad, loosely defined category includes everything from well-known wines like port to quirkier offerings like ice wine, which is made by allowing the grapes to freeze while still on the vine. Because of the higher levels of sugar and alcohol, many dessert wines are good candidates for aging. “Dessert wines, in general, have a long shelf life,” says Patten. “Madeiras can age hundreds of years,” adds Venable. And dessert wine is often best with food: Sherry plays well with cheese; port and chocolate are a classic match; and Vin Santo (an Italian dessert wine) is traditionally served with biscotti.

Though the list at AWM is ever-changing, Patten always has a few bottles of “the big three”: port, sherry and Madeira. All three are fortified, meaning that brandy is added to boost the alcohol content. And each has a geographical origin: port and Madeira are made in particular regions of Portugal, and sherry is produced in the Andalusia region of Spain.

Beyond these basic similarities, however, the categories offer a world of variation. Each style must be produced in specific and often labor-intensive ways, the result of tradition, geography and necessity. Perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the trendiest) variety is sherry. “Sherries range from bone-dry all the way to sweet,” explains Patten. “And when you learn how sherry is made, you can’t believe it’s as cheap as it is.” Sherry relies on a solera system, which involves blending multiple vintages and constantly transferring product between barrels. Though the process is taxing, the result is a nutty, raisin-y delight,

The best way to explore dessert wine, of course, is to start tasting. Allegheny Wine Mixer offers about 20 dessert wines by the glass, or flights of three smaller pours. So whether you go for bright, acidic Sauternes or rich PX sherry, there is definitely a dessert wine for you.

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